Second Sunday in Advent
December 9, 2018
Pastor Tom Schulz
Dear Fellow Redeemed,
“I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me.” Those are the words of the Lord, spoken through Malachi 400 years before the birth of Christ. The people who remembered those words were waiting for the messenger to arrive.
He did, in John, the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. He was a unique human being. Rough around the edges. Willing to live in a remote wilderness. Not afraid to speak the Word of the Lord.
It took courage for John to speak as he did. Nothing has changed. It still takes courage to speak the Word of the Lord God. The encouragement for us is this:
BOLDLY GO LIKE JOHN
I. That starts with a challenge to the status quo.
At the time of John the status quo was clear. “In the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar — when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea.” Rome was in charge of Palestine. Yes, there were people like the sons of Herod the Great who were called kings, but who ruled only by the permission of Rome. It was the time of the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. The Romans allowed these priests to be in charge of their own religious affairs.
Because of the presence of Roman soldiers, many of the Jews lived in fear. They also feared God because the priests taught that anyone who didn’t follow the law of God was in trouble.
Today the status quo is a bit different. We live in a time of relativism. People decide for themselves what the truth is. So it’s not unusual for a person to say, “I follow my own path,” which means, “I make up my own rules.” That leads to a ‘me-first’, self involved type of life.
And what has happened to sin? For many today, sin is not breaking one of God’s commandments. Sin is disobeying political correctness. So if I speak against abortion, I’ve sinned because I oppose freedom for women.
This is the mess we live in. And into this mess came John the Baptist with a bold message. “Repent for the kingdom of God has come near.” This is a universal message. No one is too sinful for this message – there is always room for repentance. No one is too righteous for this message – there is no one who has not sinned against God. Everyone has black marks on their record.
It was not easy for people to hear John accusing them of sin. It isn’t any easier today either. But this is the truth from God.
By saying, “Repent”, John is calling for a change. That is what repentance is – change. Listen to the words of Isaiah, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.”
That sounds like an engineering project. But really it is a spiritual project. Our mountains of pride, our hills of self-importance, need to be leveled. We need to confess that we aren’t as good as we think we are. Our ravines of depression because of guilt feelings, because of shame over past behaviors, need to be filled in with hope. Our sneaky, crooked behavior needs to be straightened out, corrected. Our rough and sometimes harsh speech that hurts people needs to be smoothed out and adjusted to what is kind and caring.
All this will happen only through sincere repentance of our sins of pride, our sins of self-loathing, our sins of cheating, our sins of slander and cursing. Such sincere repentance begins with sorrow, sorrow over the way we have treated our God, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. It continues with a confession before our God, admitting that we are evil people who have done nothing to deserve any of the blessings God has poured on us. We do not deserve his mercy.
Repentance is a radical transformation of the entire sinful person. It is a 180 degree turn from doing things my way, to doing things God’s way. The only reason anyone would do that is because they believe that God does care, because of the hope that there is a better way to live our lives than just living for ourselves.
II. John boldly pointed out sin, not only in the common people, but also among the elites. He used God’s law because it is good. It shows us our need to change our lives. But above all is the need to point people to their only salvation.
John did that in several ways. When Jesus came on the scene, John said, “Look, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” But before Jesus arrived, he still offered the people God’s mercy. He was, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
The concept of baptism was not new. In Old Testament Law there were times when a person had to engage in a ceremonial washing. If you carried a dead person out to be buried, afterwards you had to go through a ceremonial washing or you could not go to the temple. If you had to deal with a bloody situation, the same thing had to be done. These ceremonial washings cleansed a person outwardly.
John was offering something better. He was offering the inward healing from sin that we all need. So it was a baptism that was done in conjunction with repentance. The person would repent of their sins and receive the assurance of forgiveness through the baptism. It was a washing away of sin.
This is the gospel message of our loving God, proclaimed boldly by John. It is the promise of his gracious forgiveness that had the power to cause a person to repent and to change their sinful life.
That message of repentance has not changed. Repent and believe the good news is still the right message. It points people to Christ Jesus, the one who came to rescue us from our sins and offer us complete forgiveness. That wonderful forgiveness through Jesus is what gives people the power to change from focusing on self and sin, to focusing on Christ and his grace.
Too often, we carry around spiritual burdens. We are haunted by past mistakes. We are bothered by our pet sins – the ones we can’t seem to shake. We feel guilty over words that hurt our loved ones. The invitation to repent is the invitation to believe that through Christ Jesus, God has cancelled out all those past mistakes, all those pet sins, all those bad words. In Christ, God has given us an eternal pardon. This is the message that lifts the spirits of sinful people like you and me. It is God’s grace.
The prophecy from Isaiah ends this way: “And all people will see God’s salvation.” In his ministry, John was painting a picture of the way to heaven. We can do the same as we invite people to learn about our newborn Savior. We want people to see that there is life beyond this earth.
Doctors are a blessing from our God. They save patients from an early death through surgeries and medications. It is a great thing. But Jesus came to save us from an eternal death through the best medicine of all - the good news of what he has done for us. The best medicine is his body given into death for us. The best medicine is his blood shed on the cross to wash away all our sins.
What a joy for you and me to be able to transcend this short earthly life with the promise of a sin-free, eternal life through Jesus Christ. We have that joy. We know God’s mercy. Be bold like John to share that joy, to share that mercy. For God does not take any pleasure in punishing people who disobey his Law. He takes pleasure in saving us through Christ.
John came as the forerunner with a well-defined task. As the prophet said, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” We can do the same because the celebration of Christmas gives us a tremendous opportunity. Our focus is clear, it is that miracle child, the child who is God come to earth as a human being. Our focus is clear - that same child is our perfect substitute to save us. Our focus is clear - as our risen Lord he is still on our side, working for us every day.
So be as bold as John. Daily repent of your sins and rejoice in the assurance that those sins are all forgiven through Jesus. Then point people to the Christ child, Jesus our Savior. He is the only reason for celebrating Christmas. Amen.